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A/N: My thanks to my beta, my hubby!!
Ch. 16 -- The Heart of the White Horse
A clash of swords shifted Éomer’s attention. He looked to his left and found himself in battle against Orcs. He barely had time to notice that he stood at the Fords of Isen before he parried an Orc blade that was swinging for his midsection. From the parry his blade swung, defensive arc turning to attack arc as he deftly beheaded the Orc who had sought to disembowel him. Not ten feet from where he stood with the Orc trunk at his feet, he saw his cousin felled from his horse, a heavy shafted Orc arrow impaling his right side. Éomer heard himself scream, “Théodred!”
Éomer awoke to a hand on his arm. He shoved it away fiercely. “My lord Éomer! It is me!” Éomer looked and saw his squire, Wulf getting up off the floor of his bedchamber, “You screamed in your sleep. I was trying wake you!”
Éomer immediately threw off his twisted bedwrap of green silk brocade and swung his legs over the side and rubbed his face as if to scrub away the last remnants of the troubled dream sleep. “Wulf, I pray you pardon me for my actions. I knew not what I was doing.”
Wulf looked with concern at his lord, “No apology is necessary, My lord. Are you well?” He looked at his lord with real concern.
Éomer breathed deeply, “I am well.” He proceeded to rise from his bed. Wulf stood with his dressing robe ready as Éomer shrugged into the dark green garment tying it closed.
Concern for his lord was still in his eyes as Wulf said, “There is a courier waiting to speak to you, he said his message was for your ears only. I have put him in your antechamber and gave him some wine while he awaits your attendance.” Wulf ended with a meaningful look.
Éomer nodded his acknowledgment, returning the look. He paused before asking, “Wulf, what did I scream out?”
“Just one word, my lord. ‘Théodred!’ “
The dream in all of its vivid clarity came crashing back in Éomer’s mind and with it a feeling of deep foreboding that chilled his heart.
Éomer quickly dressed in a velvet green tunic, surcoat and fawn-colored breeches. After pulling on his boots he downed the cup of proffered mulled wine as he made his way into his ante chamber where he saw a rider from his own estates in Aldburg. As it was closer to Emyn Muil he had asked a portion of his Eored that had stayed behind in Aldburg to patrol near Mordor and to look for anything that caused concern.
“Théogar! So good it is to see, my friend.” Éomer said as he clasped hands with his rider, “Would that it were under better circumstances. What have you to report?”
The Rider, who was an older, battle-tested warrior, looked at his Lord with deep concern in his lined face and creased green eyes said without preamble, “Orcs on this side of the river, heading into Rohan proper. Near to Rauros.”
Éomer’s blood ran cold. “How many?” he asked in a controlled voice as he tried to rein in his temper.
“At least a hundred,” he paused to gather in his own trepidation, “…and they traveled by day.”
Éomer looked hard at Théogar, “By day you say?” Théogar nodded. Éomer was silent as he tried to assimilate this most disturbing turn of events. He looked at the contents of his goblet, or lack thereof and moved to the sidebar table where there was a decanter of a good Rhovanian vintage. He refilled his goblet and downed a fair portion on the first gulp. “This means nothing good…” He stared into the middle distance as he gently rolled the goblet in his hands dying just a little inside. His first impulse would be to consult his cousin, but he could not as he was away at the Fords of Isen. His second impulse was to go immediately to the King and inform him of all that was transpiring but with a thought that was like a knife to his heart he knew that he could not. Grima stood in the way of that. Éomer closed his eyes against the pain that was raging in his heart. Bred since birth to always show strength in the presence of his men Éomer could not indulge in the flare of impotent anger that would have him throwing his goblet against the wall gaining only a fleeting satisfaction. Taking a deep breath, he turned to Théogar and bent his head, “My thanks to you, Théogar. Take your rest before returning to Aldburg.” He turned to Wulf, “See to his needs and do not let him naysay you!” He turned and headed to the door to consult with the only person he still trusted implicitly.
Éowyn sat at her morning table in her dressing gown. She looked through the diamond cut glass window and could hear the late February winds whipping around Meduseld. She took a sip of the mulled wine that was her favorite breakfasting drink on a cold winter morning and heard Waerith’s voice inside her chamber, “She is breakfasting, my lord.”
“I thank you, Waerith. Can I have a moment alone with my sister?” came Éomer’s voice, careful in its modulation. A key that her brother was greatly concerned about something but did not wish to cause alarm. Alarm, of course, immediately flared within Éowyn’s heart. The next moment she turned and met her brother’s blue eyes and her heart dropped in fear of what the concern she saw there presaged.
“Éomer, what is it?”
Éomer wordlessly walked over to the table where the warming flagon of mulled wine sat and filled the small goblet next to it and sat down on the chair opposite Éowyn. He swallowed a good portion of the wine before he spoke, clearly weighing his words before giving them voice, gazing to the wine goblet as he rolled the small goblet in his hands. “I had a courier this morning reporting to me from Aldburg. I’ve had them patrolling the east,” he explained needlessly. Éowyn simply waited for him to continue wanting to know it all before giving her reaction. Éomer took in a breath before speaking. He looked up, “Théogar reported Orc activity west of Rauros. They were traveling at speed, towards Isengard and…during the day.”
Éowyn looked at her brother with wide eyes as the full import of what he was saying washed over her. Not many noble-born ladies of the court would understand the ramifications of what Éomer had just said but, Éowyn was unlike other ladies at court. She began, “Does Uncle kn—” but she stopped herself before even finishing the thought. Théoden did not know, and she could tell by the pained look in Éomer’s eyes how much it hurt to not tell his uncle everything, but the resignation behind the pain said what neither wanted to give voice to. “What are you going to do?” she asked in a low voice.
Éomer shook his head, “We cannot allow Orcs to cross our lands freely. Fight must be given and thereby a message sent. The King cannot know else Grima,” the word spat from his mouth, “would once again gainsay me and without Théodred to give support to what I say I would be forbidden to go.” He shook his head as if to ward off memory. “I must ride with my Eored tomorrow morning. When questioned I will say that I have received word about matters that need tending in Aldburg. And then will move with force to seek these Orcs that aim for Isengard.”
Éowyn looked at her brother and saw the profound pain in his eyes. A pain borne of the necessity of having to act against what he knew would be his King’s word. Influenced by Grima certainly but the King’s word was Éomer’s bond as Third Marshall of the Riddermark sworn to uphold the King’s Law. She could see that this decision of necessity was tearing Éomer’s soul apart. She gave him words she hoped would ease him, “If it must be, it will be. It is the essence of your duty.”
Éomer gave her a grim smile and no joy showed in his eyes. He stepped closer put an arm around her and pressed a fervent brotherly kiss upon her forehead. “I must make ready.” And left quickly.
Within moments of Éomer’s departure, Waerith had returned, ready to be of service to her lady but unsure of what constituted need. Her lady looked at her with such sorrow it prompted her to exclaim, “Oh my lady, what news could bring such sadness to your eyes?”
Éowyn stated sorrowfully, “I cannot speak of it, not even to you, old friend. But suffice to say, I am so scared for my brother. But for what I dare not speak.”
With his Eored ready to depart Éomer was strapping down his saddlebags after a last-minute re-checking of necessary supplies. There was no way of knowing how long this unscheduled tour was likely to be and he had to prepare as best he could. As duty required, he had informed the King of his departure and his heart was stinging from the rebuke he had received from Théoden.
He thought back to a few hours before…
“Grima, I must speak with the King.”
“I am sorry my Lord Éomer. The King is resting.”
“Let him come forth Grima…”
“But my king…” came unctuous rebuttal.
“Let him come.” Came the tired but insistent voice.
“As you wish, my King.”
Éomer stepped from the antechamber into his uncle’s private suite from which he seldom departed except on Audience days, which were growing fewer over the recent months. He saw the King in his dressing gown and robe though it was late in the afternoon. He quickly adjusted his visage to hide the discomfort this evidence of decline gave him.
“Speak!” Grima stated sharply allowing his pique at being gainsaid by Théoden bleed into his actions.
Éomer gave him a sharp glance of contempt before bowing before his uncle. “My King I must leave for Aldburg at first light. I received word that matters at the estate are in need of my attention.”
“Matters! What Matters! You are needed here.” Grima said brusquely.
Éomer breathed in deeply to rein in his temper before addressing the rude of interruption of the noisome man. “I am speaking to my uncle. It is not for you to comment.”
Théoden looked his nephew with rheumy blue eyes, “Why do you need to go. You are needed here.” He spoke with a thready voice as his breathing was alarmingly shallow.
Éomer turned back to his uncle and said, “A disaster at the Keep has happened they are in need materials and medicine.”
“Cannot your steward handle this? Is he not capable?” Grima questioned.
Éomer snapped at the questioning. “I will go because I am needed. It is not your permission I seek, Grima!”
But the display of temper seemed rouse Théoden. “Ever you two are at odds. Go then! Give me peace from such bickering. Leave me in need here. It is as expected, Grima! It is as you have said,” he said in a voice approaching his own strength, “Go nephew! But do not expect a welcome when you return!”
A voice cut across his memory and Éomer gently shook his head and returned to the voice at present. “My Lord Éomer!” Eothain, his second had spoken.
“Pray pardon, Eothain. What is it you wish to say?”
Eothain eyed his lord, but wisely looked past the pain he saw in the blue eyes of his captain and spoke to the matter at hand. “We stand ready to depart at your word.”
Éomer drew himself up as he looked at his mounted riders, “Let us be gone then!” He looked to Wulf to retain his helm adorned with the white tail denoting his investiture as Third Marshall and saw not Wulf but his sister holding his helm out to him.
Her eyes bright with unshed tears, “Go, Go with Bema’s blessing. My brother!” Her bearing was regal but for pain written on her face. He bent to allow her to place his helm upon his head. As he unbent he grabbed both Éowyn’s hands in his with a fierce grip. “I go,” he whispered fervently, “But I will come back, as soon as I may, Sister. Trust in that!”
Éowyn nodded but could not speak past the lump in her throat. With that Éomer mounted Firefoot and shouted, “Forth Eorlingas!”
Éowyn watched as they departed and whispered, “Yes, but what will you come back too?”
A few days later a strange calm had settled over the Golden Hall. Éowyn continued with her daily duties with an added fervor as she internally combated her feelings of impending change as if immersion in duty could assuage or at least allow her to ignore her fears. Éomer having departed and against the King’s wishes if not his stated words had left Théoden in full wroth. Settling him down had become almost a full-time occupation and it had delayed her weekly rounds. Finally able to go about her rounds with Héostor she offered cheering words to the inhabitants of the lower edges of Edoras who had become her friends through the years. Cheering words that were not coupled with the fellow feeling of her heart, but she was still the niece to the king and was expected to give cheer and confidence to the king’s people. Only Holdlith knew the doubts of her heart and there she could let her guard and relax. Myrthu started immediately barking and Éowyn looked up from her basket. “Myrthu!”
Héostor commented with a smile in his voice, “It would seem that Myrthu has spotted Holdlith’s cat!”
“It would appear so!” Éowyn stated with slight chagrin. Myrthu loved the tabby cat but sometimes the black Labrador forgot her own size and played a little too hard with little Cici. She needn’t have worried because by the time she stepped onto the small front porch of Holdlith’s dwelling there sat Cici perched on top of the black lab surveying all she saw and Myrthu looking a little befuddled at the strange turn in her fortunes.
“Yes, Cici we all understand you are queen of all you survey! Now be off with you and allow Myrthu to retain a little of her former dignity.” Cici looked at her mistress in the feigned innocence that only a cat can achieve and then deftly stepped off the befuddled dog as if to say, “I have proven my point and now I will leave!” and promptly trotted inside the small house tail held high. Holdlith looked back at the cat departing and then at Éowyn, “It is her world and we are all merely allowed to reside in it.” She ended with a smile and a small shake of the head.
Éowyn laughed and felt her spirits lift somewhat as Myrthu came to nuzzle her hand. “And how are you, my friend?” She said looking up at the older woman.
Holdlith smiled again, “I am as I am with no complaints.” She turned to step inside and Éowyn saw a fleeting pain cross the older woman’s face.
“That’s not nothing,” Éowyn countered as she motioned for Héostor to bring in the small crate marked for Holdlith.
“Tis nothing I tell you. The pains of an old woman nothing more!”
“Yes, well….” Éowyn started as she looked through the crate for a particular article, “There it is!” She extracted a small glazed ceramic pot with a cork stopper. “Leoulf made this new salve that he says will soothe your aches and pains.”
“You spoil me so!” Holdlith exclaimed, as she moved to get her finest earthenware plates that always made an appearance whenever Éowyn and her attendants visited. “Héostor my lad! Can you go out to the cool box and retrieve the bottle!”
“Yes, ma’am!” Héostor said enthusiastically as he headed for the entrance. He knew “the bottle” meant the finest mead he had ever tasted and always looked forward to visits to Holdlith’s dwelling because of it. He also knew he was to take his time because the two women always took some time to speak alone.
Watching the young Rider to leave Holdlith then turned to Éowyn and focused her intelligent gaze undimmed by her age on the young woman, “Now the truth, how are you?”
Éowyn looked at her friend as her eyes filling with tears as her defenses came crashing down, “Oh Holdlith, I am so worried. For my uncle, for my cousin. For my brother. Grima!” she spat out the name, “He affects everything!” Holdlith remained silent allowing her lady to speak her mind. She knew it was unusual for her lady to speak so vociferously but she felt proud that Éowyn trusted her enough to speak so freely. It was an honor that warmed her heart. She loved this brave, kind-hearted young woman as if she were her own daughter. “I am so scared, Holdlith. So much is changing and so fast.” Then hesitantly, “Do you see anything?”
Holdlith held her eye, wanting to give comfort to a heart so troubled, “Oh my lady, I have told you what I see. Both light and darkness for you and all you love. Trials are coming. Exactly what the future will not reveal exactly. But know also that you will find happiness. This is I see most definitely.” She did not say “love” or “marriage” because she knew that Éowyn shied away from any talk of love. She saw it as a fate to be avoided at all cost, as the opposite of her dreams and the doom of duty. “Be of courage, my lady.” She laid a hand upon Éowyn’s heart. “The heart of the White Horse, beats here, my lady. It is strong.”
Éowyn looked at Holdlith and saw the faith in her eyes, “Thank you, my friend.” She whispered, “I will try.”
Holdlith said with surety, “You will succeed.”
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